Molentargius saline, Sardinia (Italy). © L. Podda

Why is it so important to protect island wetlands?

2021 is being called a ‘super year’ for the environment. As we move into a post-Covid future we have an unmissable opportunity to tackle the biggest threats to the planet, and reset our relationship with nature.


Here in the Mediterranean the pressures on the natural world are particularly acute – and our wetlands have been hit particularly hard. When healthy, these unique and varied ecosystems provide nature-based solutions to some of our most pressing environmental challenges – but in our region we’ve lost more than half of our remaining wetland areas since 1970.

Since 2017, a coalition of conservation bodies – working together as ‘MedIsWet’ – are aiming to raise awareness of the particular importance of wetlands on Mediterranean islands, as they drive efforts to save them. 

As MedIsWet point out, island wetlands provide invaluable services right across the basin. They store and purify the water island communities need to survive, and they produce fish, food, salt, reeds and other economic materials. They cool hot summer air. In terms of biodiversity, island wetlands provide unique habitats for endemic and endangered species, as well as hosting some of the most important sites for birds in the whole of the Mediterranean, both native and migratory. 

Laguna di Nora, Sardinia (Italy) – a famous nesting site for flamingos. © Laguna di Nora


But island wetlands are under even more strain than their mainland counterparts. Often only covering small areas – a pond here, a reedbed there, a stretch of saltmarsh – they’re particularly susceptible to an ever-growing range of pressures.

Invasive species can quickly over-run island wetland areas, ruining unique and complex habitats. Natural flows are disrupted by irrigation and drainage; while tourist development brings concrete and footfall to fragile and vulnerable wetland sites, threatening the future of the places that attracted the visitors in the first place. On some islands wetland areas have been forgotten completely, turned into dumps or parking lots, wasteland where you can burn rubbish or leave a caravan.

We can’t carry on like this. When we lose our wetlands we lose all the benefits they bring us – and on the islands of the Mediterranean, where water and resources are limited and the impacts of tourism and development are particularly heavy, we need healthy wetlands and their nature-based solutions more than ever.

Wetland restoration and conservation, on a basin-wide scale, are essential and overdue – and they’re the focus for MedIsWet, through 2021 and beyond. Nobody expects the work to be easy. The first phase of the MedIsWet project was simply to find out the size of the job: a complete inventory of all the island wetlands in the Mediterranean revealed a total of more than 14,000 sites.

Now, it’s time for action and MedIsWet is involved in a range of wetland projects on islands across the Mediterranean, promoting the restoration of critical sites.

© Unica-CCB

 In Sardinia, work has started in several sites located in the area of Cagliari. Good examples are the Santa Gila, Molentargius and the Lagoon of Nora, crucial for biodiversity and valuable economic resources, but currently threatened by invasive species, and several other human-related factors – scientists, students, fishers, environmental groups and authorities are all involved.

 

Ladys Mile. © Terra Cypria

Concerted efforts are being made in the Lady’s Mile area in Cyprus, to reduce the uncontrolled development currently causing severe and irreversible damage to sensitive sand dune and salt lake ecosystems, as well as threatening the thousands of migratory birds that use it every year.

Ladys Mile. © Terra Cypria

© E.Tankovic / Initiative PIM


In Corsica, PIM and local partners are working at the famous Santa Giulia Lagoon to eradicate invasive species, remove waste and protect the area from encroaching development. A healthy wetland thriving with biodiversity will benefit tourists and locals alike.

© E.Tankovic / Initiative PIM

In Mallorca, the lagoon of Estany des Ponts underwent major transformation in the middle of the 20th century due to tourist development, but there is still great potential for enhancing its biodiversity and providing opportunities for a number of uses such as education, recreation, sports and ecotourism. The latter is important for the local economy since the site is very close to a large tourist area. Once restored, the area will form part of an ecological corridor between the two main protected wetlands in the north of the island. 

Estany des Ponts, Spain. © WWF Spain

 

Pollution and intense coastal urbanization are severely impacting Kerkennah (Tunisia) island’s landscape and wetlands. Currently, due to land conflicts, the only landfill in Kerkennah is closed and non-functional, and all municipal waste is deposited within the wetlands of the archipelago. MedIsWet are working for urgent change. 

In the Saline di Priolo, Sicily, the managing body LIPU has started the eradication of alien plant species. The area is surrounded by heavy industrial activities such as oil refining, but restoration efforts have been rewarded by the arrival of flamingos, making Saline di Priolo the only nesting site of the species in Sicily. 

Flamingos also feature in Turkey’s largest island wetland, Gökçeada Lagoon, where restoration efforts must strike a careful balance between ecological and economic sustainability – the popular camping and outdoor sport destination is also a feeding ground for 1,000 of the iconic birds.

In Croatia, local NGOs are working together with public institutions to bring back to life a wetland that has been dead for several years, the Sakarun Pond on Dugi Otok island. Located near a tourist beach, the wetland was overgrown with vegetation and filled with excess material, which had led to a significant loss of biodiversity. Thanks to its restoration, people will have the opportunity to rediscover the rich biodiversity of the site, including amphibians, dragonflies and waterfowl. 

Legal protection hasn’t prevented serious pressures and negative impacts on Maltese wetlands, which are particularly vulnerable due to their relatively small size. Nature Trust Malta has secured a management agreement to restore two sites, namely Il-Maghluq ta’ Marsaskala and Il-Ballut ta’ Marsaxlokk.  

MedIsWet is working elsewhere too, in all kinds of island wetlands from Greece to Sicily, getting stakeholders on side, building expert networks, sharing best practices, and raising public awareness of why wetlands matter and what we need to do to save them.

This is a huge year for the MedIsWet project and its partners. For the wider public too, for those who love the islands of the Mediterranean – and that includes so many of us, locals, visitors and tourists alike – 2021 needs to be a ‘super year’ for wetlands. 

Let’s see what we can do to make it one.

Figure 1: MedIsWet pilot sites for restoration 2020-2022

Over the coming days, small presentations of the restored sites will be published, stay tuned!

MedIsWet is a network of partnerships and collaborations between governmental authorities, NGOs, research institutions and local communities formed in 2017 in response to Ramsar Resolution XII.14. Following a successful pilot project in the Greek islands, MedIsWet aims to grow knowledge, raise awareness of the importance of these small, numerous and dispersed island wetlands among both the public and the scientific community;  and to advocate for their improved protection at national and international levels. Last but not least, it aims to initiate the restoration of island wetlands that have been degraded. Conservation measures, effective administrative frameworks, and successful restoration practices will be applied and shared across the MedIsWet network, enabling a broad and growing impact. MedIsWet is coordinated by PIM Initiative and is part one the M3 Strategy “Enhancing the conservation of coastal wetlands”, supported by the MAVA Foundation. 

Contact : e.tankovic@initiative-pim.org (Initiative PIM, coordinator of MedIsWet) 

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